El Salvador rises with help from up north: Hugo and Gerson Perez eye World Cup qualifying

The Salvadoran federation hired U.S. Hall of Famer Hugo Perez last January as El Salvador's U-23 head coach for the Olympic qualifying tournament in March. And to propel El Salvador's 2026 Project, a quest to end the Central American nation's World Cup qualifying drought that started after its 1982 appearance at the Spain-hosted World Cup. Progress under Perez, whose son Gerson serves as an assistant, now has El Salvador in contention to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

The Salvadorans came up short in Olympic qualifying but impressed -- a 1-1-1 group stage record that included a tie with eventual qualifier Honduras -- and Hugo Perez was promoted to head coach of the full national team.

Its first opponent in the final round of qualifying, the Octagonal: the USA on Sept. 2.

With a rich soccer culture and a population of nearly 6.5 million, El Salvador has underachieved in the Concacaf region since its 1982 World Cup appearance while smaller nations such as Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Panama have booked tickets to the World Cup. In 2010, FIFA briefly suspended the Salvadoran soccer federation (FESFUT) because of government interference. Its national team program hit rock bottom in 2013 when 14 players were handed lifetime bans in a match-fixing scandal. Its 2018 World Cup qualifying quest ended before the final round.

"Everything is so much more positive now," says Gerson Perez. "The initial plan was to build up to 2026, but the Gold Cup performance has shifted expectations."

In the recently completed Gold Cup, El Salvador opened with 2-0 wins over Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago before playing well in a 1-0 loss to Mexico -- "A defeat flavored with jogo bonito," read the headline in VOZ -- and falling, 3-2, to Qatar in the quarterfinals. Mexico's goal was only the second El Salvador conceded nine games with Hugo Perez at the helm. He had replaced Mexican Carlos de Los Cobos after El Salvador tied Montserrat in World Cup qualifying. With big wins over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Antigua & Barbuda, El Salvador reached the Octagonal, from which three teams qualify and the fourth-place team heads to the intercontinental playoffs.

Hugo Perez is El Salvador's 10th head coach since 2010 and seven of his predecessors have been foreign coaches -- from Mexico (two), Colombia, Honduras, Spain, Peru and Uruguay. Perez is not only familiar with Salvadoran soccer -- he finished his playing career with C.D. FAS in 1994-96, winning two titles and had previous stints as El Salvador assistant coach -- but is also tuned into El Salvador-eligible talent in the USA. The Gold Cup team included six players raised in the USA.

El Salvador U.S. connection
1. Walmer Martinez (Hartford Athletic, 22). Starred at D2 CSU Monterey Bay. Scored in the Gold Cup win over T&T.
2. *Amando Moreno (No. 10 photo, below New Mexico United, 25). Grew up in NY Red Bulls academy.
3. *Joshua Perez (Ibiza/Spain, 23). Hugo Perez's nephew attended Bradenton residency.
4. Joaquin Rivas (FC Tulsa, 29). Born in San Salvador, raised in Las Vegas. Scored 3 Gold Cup goals.
5. Alex Roldan (Seattle Sounders, 24). Scored against Guatemala. Brother Cristian won the Gold Cup with the USA.
6. *Eriq Zavaleta (Toronto FC, 28). Played six seasons with Reds for his uncle, Greg Vanney.
*Played for USA in FIFA youth championship qualifying or finals.

L-to-R: Gerson Perez (assistant coach), Pablo Rodas (sports performance), Hugo Carrillo (FESFUT President), Hugo Perez (head coach),
Diego Henriquez (sporting director), Fidel Mondragon (goalkeeper coach), Carlos Choto (equipment manager).

Although USA-raised dual nationals had represented El Salvador before -- for example, California Carlos Menjívar Jr. earned 16 caps in 2002-2007 and Texan-raised Arturo Álvarez 46 in 2009-2018 -- it hadn't taken full advantage of the talent among the USA's 2.4 million population of Salvadoran origin.

"We look at who's coming out of the academies," says Gerson Perez. "We look at who's in the USL. We especially pay attention to MLS academies in areas with a large Salvadoran population. Part of the 2026 Project is to double the player pool and make it ultra-competitive."

In addition to Gerson and Hugo Perez's connection to Salvadoran talent in the USA, Diego Henríquez, named FESFUT sporting director last October, attended the University of Tulsa on a soccer scholarship after playing for El Salvador's youth national teams, and attended graduate school at Penn.

Daniel Rios, an 18-year-old Texas native from the Houston Dynamo academy who last year signed an MLS Homegrown contract, debuted for El Salvador against Guatemala in June 26 friendly. After the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the largest Salvadoran communities are in Houston, the Washington, D.C. area, New York-New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. Among the scores of players being tracked is 18-year-old Jeremy Garay, born in the USA to Salvadoran parents, who signed a Homegrown contract with D.C. United last month.

Thirty years ago, Hugo Perez starred for the USA when it won the first Gold Cup in 1991. Gerson Perez believes El Salvador's performance at the Gold Cup could mark a watershed moment for the Salvadoran national team. It's already attracted sponsors, and on the field provided a team-building success as the U.S. players merged into the team. Even if born and raised in the USA, Perez says they're not far removed culturally.

"Whether it's Pico Rivera or Montebello, they played with a lot with other Salvadoran kids growing up, they know what the passion is like," says Gerson Perez, who pointed out that the massive fan support the team got during Gold Cup also boosted the squad.

A crowd of 45,792 watched the El Salvador-Mexico game at the Cotton Bowl, with about 65% rooting for Los Cuzcatlecos.

"All we could hear is Salvadoran fans singing," he said. "A Mexican player told us that was the first time Mexican fans were out-cheered in the USA. We are so grateful for the support we got."

Hugo Perez played for the USA in the 1984 Olympics, 1994 World Cup and 1990 World Cup qualifying, during which he scored in a crucial 1-0 away win against El Salvador. In his post-playing career, Perez served the U.S. youth national team program for eight years and coached U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams that included Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. He was let go by U.S. Soccer in 2014 and became a director and coach at Silicon Valley SA, where he joined Gerson.

Both are in the process of moving from California to El Salvador. In Gerson's case, with his wife, who is Mexican-American, and their two sons, ages 2 and 3. Gerson had lived in El Salvador for three years while Hugo was finishing his playing career. Hugo's playing career also brought the Perez family to France, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

Before taking the El Salvador job, Hugo Perez worked as a scout for the Mexican federation in the United States, scouring the nation for young Mexican-American, and even running a Mexican youth national team camp in California. The Mexican federation's aggressive courting of U.S. talent dates back to the mid-2000s. That served as a wakeup call for U.S. Soccer and in some cases uncovered talent that ended up playing for the USA. Now El Salvador is fully engaged in scouting young U.S. talent,

"It's good for all of us," says Gerson Perez. "It's good for El Salvador. It's good for Mexico. It's good for the U.S. Competition drives everybody."

13 comments about "El Salvador rises with help from up north: Hugo and Gerson Perez eye World Cup qualifying".
  1. Santiago 1314, August 4, 2021 at 4:49 p.m.

    I smell Trouble for a "Over Confident" USA if Ggg tries to play a "PrettyBoy" Tiki-Taka in EL Salvador... Release "The Kracken"

    For Game in EL Salvador: 
    ---------- * Horvath *

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, August 4, 2021 at 5:52 p.m.

    Ordinarily I would want someone else besides Zardes, but he is on a hot streak. With forwards it pays to follow the streaks.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, August 4, 2021 at 5:53 p.m.

    Why not Dest?

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, August 4, 2021 at 8:43 p.m.

    Hi Bob, I think he is TOO Skillful and Delicate to play an Away Game at the Cuscatlan... (Bad Field, Bad Team, Bad Refs, Bad FANS, Bad Food{they Food Poisioned Us})...I hope that Soccer America will "Relive" that game from the 88 Olympic Team Qualification game, where Hugo Perez "Literally" BURNED THE STADIUM DOWN.!!!(Playing for theU.S.)(.. I Have sent them my "Local" Article from the day after the game down there)

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, August 4, 2021 at 10:09 p.m.

    Good point. Barca will certainly appreciate it.

  6. Peter Bechtold, August 4, 2021 at 9:28 p.m.

    Hi Santiago 1314: Did you by chance know Alkis Panagoulias who coached our Olympic team in the 1980s ? (You might if I am guessing your age correctly based on comments here)

  7. Santiago 1314 replied, August 5, 2021 at 7:40 a.m.

    No, he was just before my Time w/NT... He went back to Greece to coach, so I never got to meet him.

  8. R2 Dad, August 4, 2021 at 11:53 p.m.

    Best of luck to Hugo and Gerson. Already exceeding expectations!

  9. frank schoon, August 5, 2021 at 9:09 a.m.

    Good stuff ,guys, but lets clear up one thing. Santiago, you're right about Dest, but we forget there is a difference between a team like El Salvadore playing tough, fight soccer and a team like the US playing tough, fight soccer. The difference is that players from El Salvadore grew in a TECHNICAL environment, pickup, lots of soccer, therefore the Salvadorians while they can fight as well as bring skills into the game. The US can fight but don't have the skills because they didn't grow in a backround of skills like the Salvadorian players....

    We tend to forget why we have difficulty playing Concacrap....due to our opponents are able to not only have the 'fighting' ability but they to SKILLS to boot..... Yeah, sure you can put the blame on ref calls, blah ,blah  but lets face it our opponents tend to have better all around better ballskills and touch..... 

  10. Santiago 1314 replied, August 5, 2021 at 1:10 p.m.

    Yup Frank... Agreed.... That EL Salvador-Mexico Game was a Prime Example... Quick, Twitchy, Tiki-Taka stuff by Both Teams... I enjoyed that game... Hugo Really has them Believing in Themselves...We will Need to Out Pace and Out Muscle them IN EL Salvador... GegenPress from Minute One... I think if we get them Boxed-In, Force Turn-Overs in their Defensive Third Build-Up; they will be Forced to Long Ball, Athletisism,  Where we should Dominate... At Least get a Tie... Win at Home; Tie on the Road... Simple Path to Qualification... I Look forward to our own Tiki-Taka Team on US Soil... Even the Away Game in Mexico... Just NOT the Other Countries... Bad Fields, Bad Refs, Bad Weather Conditions... It's just Not SMART or Feasible to try to Play "The Beautiful Game" Down there.!!!

  11. frank schoon replied, August 5, 2021 at 3:20 p.m.

    True, Santiago, but we can't play the 'beautiful game' no matter where it takes place. Yeah, we're going to have to play "physical" to get a chance  to win for we don't have anything to fall back on.  

    This does not bode well for the long run development of our soccer because sooner or later we need to learn to play good soccer and not rely on THE physical to get anywhere. Barcelona at times need to play physical although not much for they can play soccer to win, we can't play soccer.

    England relied for so many years on the physical part of the game and have never come out of that hole of playing good soccer. If it weren't for all the foreign players and coaches flooding England which has influenced the English players somewhat the English game would have been buried.....This is the rut that worries me. We need to get out of the hole that England has never come out of ,the physical. It is very easy for us to play physical and athletic and to continue fall back on this will not improve our soccer in the long run...

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, August 5, 2021 at 3:37 p.m.

    Frank, How does this Look for a Tiki-Taka Future.???

    CP.                               Reyna

    Vines.               Adams.   Dest

              Brooks.  Richards

              * Horvath *

    with Sands Playing Libero, When we go on Possesion/Offense,
    Busio AM/Schemer... Adams Holding Mid
    Ct/Hi-Forward; Dike, will Need to Improve his Skill, But we need a Finisher/Slider to Flick Short Crosses and Slip Passes into the Net(Might be Hoppe or Aaronson... Sargent.???)

  13. frank schoon replied, August 5, 2021 at 4:18 p.m.

    Honestly , I'm not familiar with a bunch of the players. I have not seen enough to make a judgement on them as individuals or how they operate with their immediate teammate in a large or small space. Or how  will they fit in a manner that each will aide the particular strenght of their immediate teammate. For example, how will Dike improve, CP's play, or what will happen when Reyna whose habit of going inside towards the centerlane effect Dike, does he go wide or will he stay with his back facing the goal, which will be his weakspot....There is a lot of questions. Hey, it could work out ,who knows. As far as Tikki-takka goes, Barca sofar has been able to play that style and I don't even seem them doing it today...;
    I think what is most important right now is to see how each player can contribute to improving his nearest teammate, 'optimally'. For example , I wouldn't want Dike to go over towards the left flank if CP is there for then CP will be facing more defenders not less and thus cut down his space to run...

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